by Jeff Smith
It's a hard truth: Few high school volleyball players go on to play in college. In fact, the latest statistics show that just 5.8 percent of four-year high school players continue the sport collegiately.
During a break between high school clinics on January 5, one of the players asked me what I thought she needed to do to earn a college scholarship. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability. Tens of thousands of high school and middle school athletes dream about playing volleyball after high school. Perhaps your daughter is one of those athletes -- or you are a high school or middle school player who dreams of competing in college.
With fewer than six out of every 100 high school volleyball players moving on to the college ranks, it takes much more than passion to turn this dream into reality. I've personally coached only about a dozen athletes who went on to play collegiately, so I asked coaching colleagues what they would tell young players who want to play at the next level. Most of the coaches who responded are current or former college coaches.
The coaches' words of wisdom fell into five categories:
1. 'Out-work everyone'
Work ethic was the coaches' clear-cut No. 1 piece of advice. The competition for spots on college rosters is fierce. To stand out from the crowd, "Be in the top three at every practice for work ethic and intensity," one coach said. "You may not have the best practice, but out-work everyone each day."
I saw this first hand with the handful of players who went on to play in college. They not only exhibited an excellent work ethic in practices and matches but honed their skills and volleyball IQ outside of club and school.
One of the most recent college players, Taylor, was always one of my shortest players. She peaked out at 5 feet 3 as a sophomore in high school. But Taylor was a relentless worker. Even during school season she would go to a local volleyball facility and play four or five hours of open gym games on weekends. When she picked up Taylor from practice on Mondays, her mom would tell me how Taylor was at open gym the whole afternoon on Saturday playing one game after another.
Taylor loved volleyball and was driven even then to play collegiately. Today she is a starting libero at a university in Tennessee. Her persistence, perseverance and several years of passionate practice paid off handsomely.
2. 'Be an elite learner'
One college coach mentioned that character matters greatly in the recruiting process. One of the main characteristics that coaches look for is a teachable attitude. Volleyball is a deep and complex sport. Even at the highest levels, there is always something new to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.
A voracious appetite to continually learn is essential to developing into a college-worthy volleyball player. Learn as much as you can from coaches at each practice. Participate in camps, clinics and classes outside of club and school. The day you think you know it all is the day that your game will start to stagnate or even back-slide and other players your age who keep learning, grinding and striving will eventually pass you by.
One coach put it this way: "Be an elite learner. Ditch your ego. You're 15; you aren't a finished product. Working hard, being versatile, being creative and other qualities don't matter in my opinion until you have a kid who's truly ready to learn and grind."
3. 'Be the best student they can be'
For obvious reasons, college coaches strongly prefer signing student-athletes who excel academically. Several coaches mentioned academics as a key quality they seek out when recruiting.
"If she wants to play here, work hard on the court and work harder in the classroom," one coach said.
"Be the best student they can be," another coach commented. "Get good grades, nail the SAT and research financial aid opportunities. Get exposure by attending Math Camp and Mock Trial and other academic events."
4. 'Don't get pigeon-holed into a single role'
Specializing at one position is typical, especially at the high school level. But don't get too tied to one spot on the court. A lot of players end up moving to different positions in college. A right side moves to the middle. A middle moves to the right side. An outside hitter becomes a libero. A setter transitions to defensive specialist.
"Don't let yourself get pigeon-holed into a single role," one coach said. "You never know what the college coach needs or sees in you."
Another college coach said coaches at his level are always in need of one type of player in particular: "If you can pass and defend well, you can play at a lot of places."
5. Promote yourself to college coaches
Most college programs have limited recruiting budgets. Unless they are a top-level Division I program like Nebraska or Penn State, they don't have the resources to unearth hidden gems and diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail.
If success in real estate is about location, location, location, success for athletes in the recruiting game is about promotion, promotion, promotion. From videoing your matches and uploading them to YouTube or other websites to provide easy access for college coaches to contacting coaches at the colleges you're interested in playing at, you'll need to take initiative if you'd like to grab a prospective college's attention.
"Start telling college coaches they are interested in their programs," one coach said.
Another coach recommended, "Be persistent. Email and contact coaches on a regular basis where you'd like to play. Make sure to always put a link to your playing video in the emails that you send to coaches."
One long-time college coach left one final piece of advice for young athletes who want to play beyond high school.
"If playing volleyball is the only concern, there is a program for everybody," he said. "If money or the quality of the education or the (school size) or the competitiveness of the team factor in, that will limit your options. But there is a program for anyone who wants to play. I used to coach one of those programs."
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.